Mental Illness, the 2nd Amendment, and the Rest of Us.

When I first saw footage of WDBJ-TV reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward being gunned down on live television in 2015, I was horrified. Later in the day, when I read more about the shooter, a disgruntled former employee named Vester L. Flanagan II, I froze.

In 2000, Flanagan filed charges, later dropped, against another former employer, NBC affiliate WTWC in Tallahassee, claiming a bigoted, hostile work environment. He further claimed that a high-ranking WTWC executive once called him a “monkey.”

Two springs ago, during my first semester teaching at a major area university, a student made a startling, utterly false accusation against me.

He claimed I called him a monkey.

Quickly investigated and dismissed — this young man, an international student from West Africa, accused other instructors of using the exact same slur, and claimed the university and numerous classmates were conspiring against him — the matter would’ve been easy to shrug off but for two things. One, my student was mentally ill. And two, he was allowed to return to class.

After a series of erratic actions around campus — none violent, but several ominous — he was visited at his apartment by a county Crisis Intervention Team. They found sufficient reason to petition for emergency committal and had the student hospitalized in a psychiatric facility for three days. Seventy-two hours later, he was discharged.

Immediately afterward, he was required to meet with the university’s own mental-healthcare team so that it, too, could assess him. Until that meeting took place, he was officially banned from campus.

Here’s where I say that the university acted properly and did what it could to keep everyone safe without violating anyone’s rights. Of course, that’s the rub: Once it completed its assessment and determined that the student was a) delusional, but b) not a threat, the school was compelled to allow his return.

Knowing my anxiousness over the situation — this was my first time teaching, after all, and this student had made accusations not only against me, but also another student in my class — the university offered to post security outside my door in the days following his return to campus.

Again, though, he was allowed to be there. That meant security couldn’t prevent him from entering; they could merely (possibly) intervene if something happened once he was inside. To my mind, it was an absurd scenario.

“Maybe I should come with you today,” said my husband on the morning this student was set to return. “I could just sit in the back and make sure everything is okay.”

I was grateful, but not enthusiastic.

“You can’t,” I said, thinking of our four children. “Our kids need at least one parent.”

I wasn’t trying to be melodramatic, just rational. We’ve all seen the headlines and watched interviews with eyewitnesses. “It all happened so fast. He just pulled out a gun and started shooting.” It’s become such a common story that it’s no longer a story at all.

We can do better than this.

Wherever you stand on the gun-control issue, everyone seems to agree that “something” needs to be done about the mentally ill, whether it’s Vester Flanagan in Roanoke (it’s obvious he “was disturbed in some way,” said Franklin County Sheriff Bill Overton), James T. Hodgkinson taking aim at Congressman Steve Scalise and others, or my student, a tormented young man who’d written to me in an earlier email that “I am currently undergoing some ‘psychological trauma’ preventing me from operating effectively. As much as I tried, I have not been able to stabilize my mind for the past few days.”

Where are our policies for the people who fall somewhere between “unstable” and “poses no threat”? What do we do when a person is hearing voices, but those voices are declared benign? And when do we infringe on an individual’s right to return to a workplace or classroom in the name of others’ right not to be put in danger?

I don’t have the answers, only questions. Although I grew afraid of my troubled student — who abruptly returned to class one day, stood in the middle of the room looking at me with a briefcase in hand, and then left, never to return — I felt compassion for him, too. He was living with demons I cannot fathom.

Yet, had the worst happened, others would simply shake their heads at the senselessness of his actions and wonder why “something” couldn’t have been done.

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